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Classics

The Mystery of all Mysteries and the Ethical Life of the Community

The great German thinker examines the dogma of the Trinity, 'the central point of salvation', the perfect model for every co-existence

Religious truths are not purely theoretical proposals. They want to relate to the whole of man, with his intellect as with the life of his will and his feelings. Knowledge of the truth must be for man a spiritual stimulus and a guide in his tension towards God; it must transform his way of thinking and his behaviour. The truths of religion rise above the range of our intellect and this mystery is more profound specifically in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. To these doctrines one can apply the acute phrase of G.K.Chesterton: 'They are like the sun; you cannot see inside them but you see everything else in its light'1. It must then be possible, through a respectful and at the same time penetrating approach, to steward the boundaries of mystery and nonetheless establish a relationship between dogma and real life. Some truths speak easily to the heart and the will; these are the truths that concern our redemption. Others seem more difficult at the level of accessibility. To these belong first of all the foundation of our faith, the doctrine of the Triune God. It is not unusual to encounter the belief according to which this doctrine is an abstract principle that is faraway and distant from the earth, to which one should without doubt adhere but which is lacking in much significance for real life.

 

People are ready to acknowledge a relationship between the Trinity and the Christian life in the fact that the works of creation, of redemption and of sanctification are attributed in a specific way to three divine Persons. A relationship is also perceived in the fact that a Christian knows that he is a son of the Father, a brother or sister of Christ, and a friend of the Holy Spirit. And these relationships in particular are distinctly profound and fecund. But with all of this, the focal point of mystery, that is to say that fact that a unique God is in three persons, has not yet been explicitly brought out. It still remains in the background.

 

Such has not always been the case. During the medieval period, for example, the dogma of the Most Holy Trinity must have had a very specific meaning in Christian life. The ancient chants demonstrate this, in which the continuum of the great mystery, obscured but at the same time luminous, emerges with force. The ancient indications regarding the spiritual life also confirm this. Here the Trinity appears as the central point of salvation, as the source and goal of the life of grace2.In it the Trinity was also seen as the highest sanction of every legitimacy. 'In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity', this is how the Lex salica began3. Earthly authority and juridical validity found their ultimate foundation in that mystery.

 

It is not good sign for the depth of Christian life when the sovereign and majestic truth of the one and Triune God is put to one side4.

 

The reflections that follow seek to demonstrate by example how alive the relationship is between the most unapproachable of all the mysteries and our daily life: the dogma of the Trinity as the Magna Carta of duty and dignity of every human community.

 

 

The forms that characterise a human community are infinitely varied: shallow social contacts; the purely material relationships that belong to social and economic life; various types of family and kindred relationships; and lastly the various kinds of relationships that are based on personal trust, from a short passing of time with someone to the most elevated forms in which kindred personalities link up and freely maintain a bond of community: this is friendship as growth of reciprocity in the spirit and in the heart; comradeship as the shared development of the same beliefs, the same goals and the same tasks, and marriage as a complete union of life.

 

If we analyse these communal relationships it emerges that they are based on two opposing approaches and movements of the soul.

 

The first is dedication (Hingabe). A person makes another person a participant in his own material goods, his own knowledge, his own experiences and his own social advantages; with trust he makes another person participate in his intimate dispositions: he serves another person with altruism and faithfulness, to the point that dedication comes to achieve the indissoluble personal bond of love.

 

This movement leads through all the levels of affection to the supreme forms of love in friendship, in comradeship, and in marriage. Here what belonged to one person comes to also belong to another. Complete dedication, which keeps back nothing for itself, has created a new unity that embraces two personhoods. Goods, hopes, concerns, and sufferings have become shared because for each one of the two the central point of their lives grows distant from the simple 'me' and draws near to 'you'.

 

The meaning that this relationship has for man becomes evident. The closed circle of the self is broken. A specific being, defined by personal inclinations, by education and by the environment, has opened up. Usually the circle of the self easily opposes a natural resistance to states of mind and the thoughts of the other; now it has come to recognise the interior world of another person through love. There thus takes place that special process of the soul which is the 'adoption' of the spiritual life of another person. Through dedication, an individual perceives himself in another, shares directly in the life of another, develops his own thoughts beginning with the thoughts of another; he feels the joy and the pain of another as his own. Through this process the individual world doubles; the thoughts and the states of mind of another person, which are often opposed, fertilises its existence. In this way it develops in a fullness and fecundity that are completely new, sustained by that expansive action that comes from the authentic addressing in the second person singular, from the overcoming of selfishness.

 

Naturally, in this movement of the spirit a danger also resides: full trust can, in fact, lead to the abandonment of things that cannot be ceded, that which belongs intimately to a third person. It can take away autonomy, it can falsify judgement, it can weaken will, and it can eliminate the personal unity that has a foundation it itself. It can lead one person to act against his own conscience because of the will of the other person. People who are under the exclusive influence of communal instinct soon lose the vigour and the originality of their being; they become banal and flat. All those irremediable influences of social instinct, in relation to which Nietzsche used the brief phrase 'the community makes common'5 become conditioning.

 

Thus it is that this movement of the spirit has to encounter one that is opposed and also put up resistance to it: this is the tendency of the soul to stick to itself (Selbsthaltung), to put distance between itself and the other person. This tendency defends the right to one's own beliefs, and affirms the independence of judgement and the autonomy of decision-making and of responsibility. This is matched in the other person by reserve (Zurück-haltung) when faced with that boundary that envelops the personhood of the other person and one's own personhood; it is expressed in having regard for another, which forbids one from influencing the judgement of the other person, from acting by working on feelings rather than on motivations, from exercising pressure on conscience, from seeing the other person as a means to an end; it is expressed in profound respect(Ehrfurcht), which does not want to obtain, extort or appropriate intimate self-expression, but wants to receive it only in the act of a freely-given gift.

 

The meaning of this approach of the soul is expressed in what has already been said. On it is based every kind of autonomy, solidity, nobility and forming energy of the person. But on its own it, too, conceals within itself a danger. It can render understanding impossible; it can produce a timorous reserve that does not go over and above oneself to draw near to the other person, that is no longer able to give or receive. Lastly, this approach can make community impossible and drive man into loneliness.

 

For this reason a completion is required, an action of mutual correction. However, this 'compensation' of souls cannot be conceived along the lines of natural forces, as takes place in a static system where impulse and counter-impulse maintain everything in balance. Compensation does not take place 'on its own'. It occurs only under the influence of a living moral power: the will to community. Community is not achieved through the conjunction of natural beings but through the free and reciprocal dedication of moral personalities. It is underpinned by the wish to achieve a form of life that is more elevated than that which can be achieved as single individuals. The desire for perfection, for the elevation of a morally noble existence, and in the final analysis the perhaps unknowing wish for God, is what pushes the personality to exit from the narrowness of its own self to give itself to another person, in order to draw near to completion through a movement of expansion and reciprocal enrichment.

 

The idea of community regulates the movement of the soul, a movement that is characterised by the polarity of dedication and conservation, attraction towards itself and the keeping of a distance. This will requires from both personalities real trust, an authentic communication of their own patrimony. It requires that each one accepts the other with clear readiness of help; teaches recognition of its own indigence; teaches to ask and to receive. The will to community requires that this dedication lasts in time and does not allow itself to be discouraged by difficulties. It transforms natural instinct into moral action of true love, it gives it the courage of sacrifice and the strength of humility, it confers on it the constancy and the exclusivity of faithfulness. Through this will, dedication to duty is accomplished, and it is only in this way that selfishness, fear and volubility can be overcome.

 

Community itself requires that in building it there is a tie of independent personalities. Man can never be for another man a means to an end; he can only be an end in itself: the freedom of his conscience, of his judgement, and of his decision cannot be violated. Around every personality there is a sacred circle that no one can cross, unless it opens of its own accord; but to a certain extent this circle cannot open itself without being profaned. And while the pure will to community elevates yearning to free dedication, to noble aspiration, to certain faithfulness, it creates a counterweight to all of this in an approach of profound respect in relation to another person and of spiritual modesty towards their personality.

 

This counterbalance alone assures the achievement of meaning for every community. Upright dedication breaks the obstacle of individuality, expands the 'ego' through the 'you'. But, once again, only profound respect and modesty conserve the soul against the dissipation and the loss of its dignity. A movement makes the riches of shared life accessible; the other assures the form of the interior approach: loneliness and community; becoming one and keeping a distance. Fulfilment is born from these two tendencies alone.

 

Upon the harmony of these movements is based the beauty of community: a limpid form, noble in the fullness of giving and receiving. If the term 'formation' (Bildung)6 has a meaning, that meaning is to be found specifically here, in the fact that the force of life is dominated by a subtle sensitivity to its limits. This is the urbanitas of the ancients, the 'discipline and the measure' (zuht und mâze) of the Middle Ages, which in the variety of social relationships establishes at the same time bridges and barriers between men; the feeling that in every situation there dominates that action of counterweights of the forces that form community.

 

 

Happiness or pain in man very much depends on whether he performs in a right way the task of community. His life can become enriched or saddened according to whether he manages or does not manage to establish the right relationship with others.

 

What does the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity have to say on this? We have to only to place this question within the relationships described above and it illuminates those relationships with its light.

 

There is a single God. A single nature and a single divine life. The Father communicates them totally to the Son; the Father and the Son communicate them to the Holy Spirit. The Father or the Son keep back nothing for themselves. The Son rejects nothing of the gift of the Father; the Holy Spirit rejects nothing of his two donors. The Son receives from the Father everything that He is and has; the Holy Spirit receives everything from the Father and the Son. The three divine Persons have everything in common: the entire fullness of truth, all the nobility of holiness, the same splendour of beauty, and the unique infinite riches of blessedness. For the Father, the Son is total comprehension; the Holy Spirit unites them as perfect love. What we call the first movement towards community, dedication, the tension towards unity, achieves here its absolute level: the divine Persons are not linked to each other as takes place with men in the mysterious union of souls through love. Amongst them reigns a perfect identity of everything that we call life and essence because they are one God. That addressing in the second person singular which, as St. Francis of Sales writes, leads to the point that one can say of another 'my heart which is with you'7, is here realised without any 'so to speak', without any reduction: Father and Son and Holy Spirit live one and the same life.

 

At the same time, however, there is present within the Trinity at the highest level of completion also the other movement, the keeping to oneself, the distance between personhoods. This is because even though everything is shared in the Trinity, this is not true of the divine Persons. These remain unmixed, they are not exchangeable, they are completely inviolable. The Father is not in any way the Son, and both the Father and the Son are unmistakeably distinct from the Holy Spirit. This is the perfection of community. Love, the commonwealth of everything, to the point of identity of being and life. But at the same time perfect stewardship of self by the person.

 

The perfection of this community is matched by its fecundity. Not a relationship between extraneous and already existing personalities, as is the case with men, but a community which, in a certain sense, generates itself. Precisely because of the fullness of divine comprehension of self, the Father brings forth the Son with the same nature, and from the infinite power of mutual love the Father and the Son generate the Holy Spirit with the same divine life.

 

The Most Holy Trinity is the mystery of all mysteries. Our thought weakens in front of this mystery and it easily happens that we are assailed with the sensation of thinking of words and no longer of things. And yet this sun, which we are unable to observe, throws light on our lives, and throws light specifically from its central core: from the fact that God is in three persons. The Trinitas Augusta teaches us that forming community means to be ready to give everything; it means opening oneself with upright readiness to achieve the fullness of the other person. The Trinity teaches that everything, really everything, could be and, at the highest level, should be, shared. One thing alone it should not be, and with this the counterbalance to dedication is opposed personhood. This has to remain inviolate in its independence. Its sacrifice can be neither desired nor offered nor accepted.

 

By this the essential approach of every community is clearly circumscribed. Dedication must be allowed and offered in the right ways and measure, and that community in which a person hides himself and his things from another is imperfect. But the right to personhood is sacred and inalienable and must remain in itself inviolate: as soon as this boundary is crossed, a community immediately becomes against nature, immoral, whatever kind of community it may be.

 

The Magna Carta of every human community is to be found in the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. In all its forms, a human community is a vestigium Trinitatis, a reflected image of the divine community of the Trinity. However, this is more than a mere model. In Christ we are united by a new bond that goes beyond natural reality. In him, through the action of grace of the Holy Spirit, we are reborn and mysteriously made participants in divine nature itself 8. We are brothers and sisters of Christ, children of the Father, and for all of us the Holy Spirit is our guide and our friend.

 

We will never in reality manage to understand how man can be in the grace of 'sharing in divinity9 and yet we remain creatures without any confusion. However, we manage to perceive that we human beings, who have now become brothers and sisters in Christ, are united by an inexpressible divine bond, of whose wonderful reality St. Paul said such profound things in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. This unity, which goes beyond every natural affinity, is mysterious but real.

 

This link of grace alone gives to men the moral force to achieve the essential goal of community, to really become a living 'trace' of the Most Holy Trinity.

 

From the Trinity in this way there comes down to man not only the model of communal life but also the power to achieve it. It is the grace that exercises its action with the profound respect that the sons of God have, who 'love one another with brotherly affection',10 in love, where they 'have all in common'.11

 

 

[Text taken from Romano Guardini, Opera Omnia VI, Scritti Politici, edited by Michele Nicoletti, Morcelliana Editore, Brescia 2005 .

 

By kind permission of Morcelliana, Brescia. © Editrice Morcelliana, Via Gabriele Rosa, 71, 25121 Brescia]

 

 

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1. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxie, Munich 1909, p. 28.

 

 

2. This is the case, for example, in the writings of St. Bonaventure.

 

 

3. The Lex salicais was the law of the Franchi Salii, one of the oldest sources of Germanic law, whose oldest version is attributed to the reign of Clodoveus at the beginning of the sixth century. Some versions of the Lex salica that go back to the fourth century open with the formula 'In nomine Sanctae Trinitatis': cf. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Legum Sectio I, IV, II (Lex salica) (Hahn, Hannover, 1969), p. 3. (N.d.C.).

 

 

4. Pio X removed the numerous feasts that celebrated it from Sundays and gave it its special meaning beginning with a recognition of the foundations

 

of religious life. Today the day of the Most Holy Trinity has once again the pre-eminent position due to it in the liturgy.

 

 

5. «Jede Gemeinschaft macht, irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann - "gemein"». Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft, 284, in Sämtliche Werke, hrsg. von Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, DTV, München 1993, 3. Aufl., Bd. 5, pp. 231-232. In German

 

the term 'gemein' means both 'common' and 'vulgar, low'(translator's note).

 

 

6. he German term Bildung(from Bild = image, form) means 'formation', 'education', 'culture'. Guardini wants to emphasise how such a spiritual process is specifically 'giving form' to the force of life which would otherwise remain a slave to disordered impulses (editor's note).

 

 

7. Cf. Francesco di Sales, Introduction à la vie dévote: fac-simile de l'unique exemplaire actuellement connu de l'edition de 1619, (Fabius Henrion,

 

Tours, Paris, 1934), part II, chapter II.

 

 

8. 1 Pt 1 : 3.

 

 

9. '...divinitatis esse consortes...' from the Ordo Missae, when wine is mixed with water.

 

 

10. Rom 12 : 10.

 

 

11. Acts 2 : 44.

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